Some commentators have argued that exchanging them makes sense, since they never got a chance to engage in actual espionage, and hence had been arrested only for money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent of Russia. That argument misses the point.
These spies were meant not only to recruit others who would do the actual spying — hence the large sums of money in their homes obviously meant to be used to pay recruits — but also to try and obtain positions or placements where they could gain access to the kind of information that is not readily available in press stories or on Google.
The best example of this is the case of young Mikhail Semenko, who never adopted a false American name. Semenko came to America to study international relations and Asia studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. After graduating, he got a job with a travel agency called Travel All Russia, and moved with the firm to Arlington, Virginia. But Semenko was from the start an SVR agent, sent to the United States to move up the ladder and eventually gain a position from which he could be of use.
As a story in the London Telegraph reveals, Semenko tried to obtain jobs at both the liberal New America Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both think tanks, as we know, are closely connected to the Obama administration. Had he been hired by either of them, Semenko would have been in a good position to eventually either get an actual job somewhere in the government — just as Soviet era spies did in the 1940s — or to have regular contact with administration figures who might have shared inside information with him as part other job activities. As the British newspaper explained, “Semenko attended numerous think tank events and was an assiduous networker even for a Washingtonian. … [H]e appeared determined to secure employment closer to the heart of the US government.”
Clearly, both the Russian and American governments hope that with the exchange a done deal, and the spies back in their native Russia, the arrests and the drama will quickly be forgotten. In another week, it will simply be yesterday’s news. Only time will tell whether years from now, we will suddenly learn that the ten were more successful than we imagined, and had recruited others who managed to do actual damage.